The American Interest | 5.29.15
Real Clear World | 5.30.15
By Alan W. Dowd
members—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania—are formally asking the
alliance to deploy a “brigade-level permanent allied
military presence” on their territory to
deter Russia from repeating its salami-slice invasion of Ukraine. NATO should
swiftly approve this request. It’s the best way to prevent war and preserve the
The Baltics are not
overreacting. Just consider what’s happening in their neighborhood.
deploying troops to wage asymmetric, anonymous warfare against a sovereign,
peaceful neighbor in Ukraine, annexing Crimea, and carving out an armed Russian
zone in eastern Ukraine, Vladimir Putin unveiled a new military doctrine focused on confronting NATO and pledging
the use of Russia's armed forces “to ensure the protection of its citizens
outside the Russian Federation.” Given that there are seven million ethnic Russians in Ukraine
and a million in the Baltics—and that Putin has reserved the right to determine
when, where, and whether they need to be protected—this is a recipe for
something much more complicated than the Cold War.
In 2013, Russia’s troop presence in the Baltic region began to swell. Russian air force activity
is reverting to Cold War-style brinkmanship. And the Russian army is conducting
a nearly-constant barrage of war games on NATO’s borders. Many of them are
“snap” exercises carried out with no advance warning. This makes it difficult
for NATO to know what Moscow is doing—and easy for Moscow to flip the switch
from exercises to invasion.
military is a shell of the Red Army, Russia increased military spending 108 percent in the decade after 2004. Putin has unveiled plans to deploy
2,300 new tanks and 600 new warplanes the next ten years. Putin's army clearly
retains enough punch to reincorporate Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine and
parts of Georgia. It's not unthinkable that the Baltics could be next. As Putin
himself boasts, “If I wanted, Russian troops could not
only be in Kiev in two days, but in Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw or
Bucharest, too.” To top it all off, Moscow has violated the Intermediate
Nuclear Forces Treaty and Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, and withdrawn from the Nunn-Lugar nuclear threat reduction program.
Phillip Breedlove, NATO’s military commander, concludes, Putin’s Russia is “blatantly
attempting to change the rules and principles that have been the foundation of
European security for decades.”
To be sure, Putin and his apologists argue that Moscow is
simply reacting to NATO's eastward expansion, which Putin insists is a
violation of agreements made at the end of the Cold War. But as Steven Pifer
of the Brookings Institution details,
“Putin’s NATO narrative” that the alliance double-crossed its way to the
Russian border doesn’t match the recollections of the highest levels of the
Soviet leadership. Mikhail Gorbachev “made clear there was no promise regarding
broader enlargement,” Pifer writes. Mary Elise Sarotte, a professor of
international relations at the University of Southern California, addsthat
Gorbachev signed “accords that allowed NATO to extend itself over the former
East Germany in exchange for financial assistance.” Gorbachev himselfconcedes, “The topic of NATO expansion was not discussed at all.”
Moscow saw NATO expansion as encirclement, Washington and Western Europe as the
natural evolution toward a “Europe whole and free,” and Eastern Europe as a
much-needed insurance policy.
Insurance is a good way to contemplate a
permanent NATO presence in the Baltics. Insurance, after all, is about providing protection against worst-case scenarios.
Since its founding in 1949, NATO has been in the insurance business.
Prudent people hope they never have to use
their insurance, but they realize that paying a little each month or each year
protects them against having to pay a lot—or losing everything—if disaster
strikes. The same is true in the realm of international security.
If Putin follows his Ukraine playbook and
covertly violates the sovereignty of the Baltics, he will force the alliance to
either blink or fire back. Neither alternative leads to a happy outcome. The
former means NATO is neutralized and neutered; the latter means war.
One way to prevent that scenario
is to base permanent NATO assets where they are most needed: on the territory
of NATO's most-at-risk members. That's what the alliance did during the Cold
War, and it kept the peace—as it will today. This is the best insurance against
Putin. The goal here is not to start a war but quite the opposite: to prevent
what Churchill called “temptations to a trial of strength.”
What the Balts are requesting
is compatible with NATO’s core mission, politically feasible and militarily
First, let’s consider the Baltics’ request in context of NATO’s core mission: deterrence. The
Baltics can be forgiven for wanting a more permanent, more tangible commitment
from NATO. After all, NATO didn’t begin drawing up contingency plans for defending the Baltics (which joined
the alliance in 2004) until after Russia’s
invasion of Georgia in 2008.
The reason for the delay: Some
members of the alliance worried that such contingency planning would provoke Moscow. In fact, the very opposite is
true. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and Georgia—and non-intervention in the
Balts—strongly suggests that he takes NATO’s all-for-one Article 5 commitment
seriously, at least for now.
Critics of a more robust
commitment to NATO's easternmost members worry about the remote location of the
Baltics and strategic-depth issues. But few places were less defendable than
West Berlin during the Cold War, which was literally surrounded by Soviet bloc
armies. Yet NATO maintained permanent forces in that remote outpost of freedom to
deter the Red Army—and it worked.
Second, a brigade-sized force would comprise between 3,000 and 5,000
troops. By way of background, NATO
has about 3.3 million men under arms. The United States has some 67,000 troops in Europe. And
NATO accounts for 60 percent of world military spending. In
short, the alliance can do this.
Of course, most NATO members have been
hacking away at their militaries in recent years, which explains NATO’s urgent
call that each member invest at least two percent of GDP on defense. According to NATO’s latest financial data, only four of NATO's 28
members—the United States, Britain, Greece and Estonia—meet that standard
today. In fact, NATO’s European members spend an average of just 1.6 percent of
GDP on defense. Britain will soon invest less
than two percent on defense. Even U.S. defense spending
is tumbling: 4.7 percent of GDP in 2010, 3.2 percent today, 2.3 percent by
To be sure, this
post-recession retrenchment should be reversed. But even a NATO with fewer
resources can muster enough to answer the Baltics’ SOS and deter Putin from
attempting another Ukraine or Georgia.
Third, the military-strategic benefits of a
brigade permanently based in the Balts are many. By definition, it would be
permanent, which provides real reassurance to the host nations. In addition, it
sends a clear message, but an unmistakably defensive one. Russia’s military high
command knows a brigade is not large enough to invade Russia. Yet it packs real
defensive punch. A U.S. armored brigade, for example, includes about 3,000 battle-ready
soldiers, 150 tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, and dozens of
NATO’s promise in 2014 to deploy assets in Eastern Europe on a “rotational
basis” was a step in the right direction, as are plans to build a chain of command centers in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria,
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. However, those command centers will be staffed
by just 50 personnel each—not much of a deterrent—and when Putin and his tiny
Baltic neighbors hear that word “rotational,” they think temporary, perhaps
expendable.Saying yes to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will make it clear to them—and
Putin—that Article 5 is as valid for NATO’s youngest members as it is for
NATO’s oldest members.